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Fundamentalist Family, Secular Christmas

Today's post is from Susan Campbell, author of Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl. Campbell's writing has been recognized by the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors; National Women's Political Caucus; the Sunday Magazine Editors Association, and the Connecticut chapter of Society of Professional Journalists. She was also a member of the Hartford Courant's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning team for breaking news.

Dating Jesus: link to Beacon Press page for the bookWhile other families lit Advent candles, my brothers and I gathered to hang red bulbs on a fake silver tree that came with a color wheel that turned its branches from red to blue to green.

And we had stockings. They held oranges and a handful of walnuts still in their shells. Looking back, I know now that walnuts were just filler, but back then I could only puzzle as to what use a 6-year-old would have of a walnut still in its shell.

We had gifts and glitter and candles, too. What we didn't have was Baby Jesus.

As members of a fundamentalist Christian church, we did not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. The Bible led us to believe that Jesus was most likely born in the spring -- the shepherds being outside the night of his birth was our first clue. Then, too, the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem in the first place most likely wouldn't have been conducted in December, so we saw the winter holiday as little more than creeping Catholicism, a state against which we were constantly on guard. Choosing willy-nilly a date on which to celebrate Our Savior's birth was, to us, yet another example of how far people had strayed from the True Message.

And so we didn't participate. At least, we didn't participate fully. Instead, we had an entirely secular holiday, complete with a tree and fudge and family gatherings, but no carols, no manger scenes, and certainly no mention of Jesus' birthday. We talked about the spirit of giving (a good lesson any day of the year) and the need to look out for those with less than you (ditto). But we who prided ourselves on our utter holiness missed this one opportunity every year to flaunt it. We treated Christmas like any other day off from work or school, except we got up early and gave one another presents. And then, come the spring, we turned around and did it all over again with Easter. We had the baskets and the nice hats and dresses, but no mention whatsoever of Jesus' burial and resurrection.

It's hard to live so far afield from the rest of the world -- or what seems, when you're 8 or 9, like the rest of the world. But walking that fine line between religion and the secular world at such an early age taught me to split hairs. It taught me to look at things for others' perspective. I can still split them with the best of them, but it strikes me as a big waste of time. You either celebrate, it or you don't. These days, I hang my Jesus ornaments and I smile. Does it really matter, the actual date of Jesus' birth? I can't imagine that it does.

You may also be interested in Susan Campbell's post on the media coverage of Sarah Palin's religion. Check out Campbell's blogs at the Hartford Courant and her Dating Jesus website.